I remember the first time as if it were yesterday: in Dallas Chicken at the bottom of Franciscan Road in Tooting, south London, less than a mile from the house where I was raised, that hot, tender, salty meat crossed my lips and filled my teenage soul with a bellyful of satisfaction.
I was born into a Hindu family, where delicious vegetarianism had hitherto reigned. Eating meat was an act of transgression: it crossed an invisible but solid line in the customs of our household. Over the following 20 years – six of them as a restaurant critic often paid to pass judgement on MasterChef – my eating meat has gone from an act of rebellion to one of membership. Our culture is so immersed in the flesh of our non-human friends, that these days not eating meat seems rebellious.
I have tried to go vegetarian before, only to lapse. I am overweight and – in that ghastly term that connotes so much of the smug middle-class horror I want to spend a lifetime resisting – a foodie. I visit countries for their cuisine; I am a leading public intellectual when it comes to pizza, which must have pepperoni to qualify for my attention; and I could live on beef wellington. Every time I’ve given up meat, I have eventually succumbed.
But this time is different. Before explaining why, I should make clear that as dilemmas go, turning vegetarian is not a tough one. First, there is my health. You don’t have to watch documentaries like the over-excitable What the Health to be persuaded of the potential dangers of processed meat. I am not one of these panic-on-a-plate types, and despise hysterical health fads. But in my case, less meat means more good stuff.
Next, the environment. Just say climate change is real, caused by humans and related to energy consumption. An astonishing proportion of our energy usage relates to meat production. This is why the UN now promotes giving up animal products – to fight climate change. I had the pleasure of meeting Al Gore last year. He is vegan because of climate change. Bill Clinton, who has also cut out meat, told me last year it was mainly for his health. As for the moral question, I tell myself that when the Large Hadron Collider next meets with success, scientists won’t, unfortunately, find sub-atomic particles called Good and Bad. We have to find our moral bearings elsewhere. My own moral metric is this: suffering is bad. Suffering is pain over time. It requires sentience: a capacity to sense or feel.
There is absolutely no philosophical basis for disqualifying non-human animals from this moral framework. Cows and pigs, for instance, are held to be highly sentient and capable of immense suffering. In my view, the industrial slaughter of such animals is morally reprehensible, since membership of other species ought not to push them beyond our ethical purview.
Knowledge is of two kinds: material, which by our common efforts grows; and moral, which despite our common efforts does not. Yet even if moral knowledge is an unreliable guide, lost as quickly as it is found, there is such a thing as progress, and it has often involved bringing groups thought to be biologically inferior into the sphere of our affections. Non-human animals are biologically inferior. But they warrant our affection nevertheless.
Why, then, is this time different? Nearly two years ago, I became a father. This has sharpened all my moral judgements, as I now think of my son’s needs before my own.
Due to factors beyond our control, my wife and I are having kids later than we wanted to: for this reason and others, I want to be as healthy as possible, and live as long as I can, to be around for my son.
Parenthood adjusts the horizon. I have found I care a great deal more about the state of the world a century from now. The task of husbanding precious resources, including natural ones, seems much more urgent. But above all – and I know how soppy this sounds, – raising an infant has radically enhanced my horror at the suffering of weak creatures.
Yes, your correspondent did just say that he looks at cows and pigs differently now that he’s a dad. I do. Doubtless I will lapse regularly, but the whole Veganuary palaver is a shallow fad and therefore irrelevant to me. This time I really will stop eating meat for the foreseeable, because it’s not about me. I haven’t rehearsed these arguments with my son, Winston, yet – but I suspect he’d approve.
This article appears in the 17 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history